Monday, December 19, 2016

Obama in Syria

President Obama leaves office on a wave of good feeling. Many people miss him already.

His administration has a spokesman who can present his case with uncommon eloquence. If it sounds true, if it sounds as though he believes what he is saying, many people are happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. Thus, a majority of Americans approves of the job he did.

Now, writing in The Guardian, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, has laid out the case against Obama. He argues that Obama’s failure in Syria will haunt the world for decades to come. One notes that your humble blogger has often mentioned Obama’s failure in Syria.

Ahmad explains it well, and besides, he is writing in the Guardian, Great Britain’s most left-leaning daily newspaper. He has also written for The Nation. His analysis is not coming from the fever swamps of the radical right!

I will offer some excerpts without too much commentary.

Ahmad opens thusly:

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine earlier this year, President Obama said he was “very proud” of the moment in 2013 when, against the “overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom”, he decided not to honour his own “red line”, allowing Assad to escape accountability for a chemical attack that had killed more than 1,400 civilians.

Obama may be alone in this judgment. A year earlier, seemingly on a whim, he had set a red line on the use of chemical weapons at a time when none were being used. The red line was, in effect, a green light to conventional killing. But the regime called Obama’s bluff – and, predictably, he backed down. No longer fearing punishment, the regime escalated its tactics.

What were the results when Obama backed down?

Nearly four times as many people were killed in the two years after the chemical attack as had died in the two years before. Obama’s abandonment discredited Syria’s nationalist opposition and empowered the Islamists. It helped Isis emerge from the shadows to establish itself as a major force. Together, these developments triggered a mass exodus that would displace over half the country’s population. And as the overflow from this deluge started trickling into Europe, it sparked a xenophobic backlash that has empowered the far right across the west.

The inaction also created a vacuum that was filled by Iran and Russia. Emboldened by his unopposed advances into Ukraine and Syria, Putin has been probing weaknesses in the west’s military and political resolve – from provocative flights by Bear bombers along the Cornwall coast to direct interference in the US elections.

Why did Obama fail? Ahmad explains that he wanted to make a deal with Iran and did not care about the cost:

The administration had gambled its reputation on the Iran deal – a deal whose success would distinguish Obama from his belligerent and quixotic predecessor. Iranian leaders, however, understood that by investing his legacy in the deal, Obama had also made himself its hostage. He couldn’t make too many demands for fear of undoing his own legacy. Conscious of this, Iranian hardliners saw no cause for constraint. Flush with cash from the deal, they have embarked on a foreign policy far more intransigent than anything Iran has pursued in a century. Tehran has little need for nuclear weapons when it can conquer Aleppo without them. And, as a client of Iran, Assad has enjoyed impunity.

As for Aleppo, Ahmad writes its epitaph:

Aleppo fell on Obama’s watch. He did not raise a finger to save the city even though he had mobilised America’s vast military assets on short notice to defend Kobani and imposed a no-fly zone over Hasakah. By withholding leverage, Obama also allowed Russia to use the charade of diplomacy to aid Iran and the regime’s military conquest.

In January, as Obama surrenders the White House to America’s own strongman, the Iran deal will probably not survive long. Its benefits were already made doubtful by Obama’s invertebracy. It is Aleppo that the world will remember him by.

True enough, Obama kept us out of war. It will not be a consolation to the people of Aleppo, the people of Syria, the people of Iraq or the people of Europe.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

It won't be a consolation to the Russian Ambassador to Turkey. He was assassinated today. Assassinations in that sector of the world have a way of getting out of hand, leading to other dark happenings.

Obama showed his true colors in Syria. He showed them for his own feckless foreign policy, which provided a vivid contrast to the political savagery he reserves for his domestic opposition. He is much more calculated, ruthless and cruel toward Republicans than he is with anyone else in the world. Follow his choices, not his words, and you will find the truth. And the truth hurts.

Obama's choices in Syria emboldened our enemies. There is no other way around it. He is an incompetent world leader. His "red line" means nothing.

I do not believe Obama's approval numbers. People are still cowed when asked about their feelings for our nation's first black president. Better to go along and get along outwardly, and keep your opinions to yourself. The November 8 results were a resounding stick in the eye to Obama's politics, results and legacy. The slaughter of 6 Dallas police officers are tied to Obama's brand of identity politics, and instructive as to what happens when it gets out of hand. I continue to believe Dallas was the single incident that had the greatest impact on the outcome of the election.

Trigger Warning said...

"I do not believe Obama's approval numbers..."

Obama's approval numbers are brought to you by the same people whose polls showed a 0.95 probability of Clinton winning the general election and an unemployment rate < 5%.

art.the.nerd said...

> True enough, Obama kept us out of war. It will not be a consolation to the people of Aleppo, the people of Syria, the people of Iraq or the people of Europe.

Obama was elected to safeguard the people and interests of the United States, not Syria, Iraq, or Europe. This is a rare case in which I think Obama acted (or declined to act) correctly.

You may argue that, like the UK after Neville Chamberlain and Poland, the US will pay a larger price down the road. In my opinion, that remains to be seen.

Ares Olympus said...

Perhaps the black mark on Bill Clinton's presidency was his 8 years of economic sanctions against Iraq, so even things like Chlorine for water purification was banned from imports.

This issue was discussed on 60 minutes in 1996 and State Madeleine Albright was tricked into saying the death of 500,000 children in Iraq (above normal morality rates) was worth it, to keep Saddam's murderous nature contained.
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.

—60 Minutes (5/12/96)

It’s worth noting that on 60 Minutes, Albright made no attempt to deny the figure given by Stahl–a rough rendering of the preliminary estimate in a 1995 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report that 567,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died as a result of the sanctions.

This is also why it was difficult for me to argue against GW Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was obvious to me that his case was flawed and there was ZERO evidence that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, and of course most of the terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, which could easily be argued as more brutal against human rights as largely secularize Iraq where women went to college at high rates and could become professionals in society. Of course after 8 years of sanctions the VAST majority of professionals, men and women, abandoned their homeland for better options elsewhere. So Iraq experienced a huge braindrain BECAUSE of our sanctions.

It does seem like world leadership is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" sort of proposition. Since you never see the "what if we had done something different", there's no proof if the current bad outcome is still better than the avoided worse income, or the reverse.

And Israel is in the same position - with a double-standard of world opinion - anything Israel does to defend itself is criticized while all their humanitarian efforts are ignored. And the Palestinians can extort the world for tens of billions of dollars of "aid" that goes into the pockets of corrupt leaders, and they never have to look in the mirror as the cause of their own people's suffering.

And Russia's predicaments are similar, when they defend their interests, and the opposition plays the victim in the world news reports, however much they provoked the response in the first place.

It does seem to be an open question what a Trump's presidency will be. We know he loves to say outrageous things, as the "Art of the Deal" requires that you put your rivals at a disadvantage by refusing all previous agreements, and after Trump calms down most of his enemies roll over and play nice. But I'm not sure that works for the President, at least not without actions. So you have to at least admit Trump will follow in Obama's footsteps and expand drone attacks to an ever greater degree, and not worry about colateral damage, not any more than Obama did.

But I admit I'm concerned about the U.S. and Trump's affections for Putin. Last week I watched a nearly year old Frontline documentary about Putin, and new reports suggest he's extracted some $85 brillion in personal wealth for his 16 years in service, and he's up for re-election in 2018 still with a high popularity. I can see his goal has to be to find a worthy replacement so he can retire in style, and you can be sure he'll be diversifying his billions outside Russia when he's done.

If I had to pick a political partner, I'm sure I'd pick Benjamin Netanyahu over Vladamir Putin, although I suppose both have benefited from assissination of political rivals.